Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Last week I stood in my swivel-based office chair attempting to hang a picture. It had been bothering me all week and surely using this approach would be successful and quick.

Just as I stretched as far as I could and began to loop the latch on the back of the frame to the nail, the chair I was standing on shot out from under me. Sprawled in the middle of my office with every part of my body in pain, I began to contemplate my ability for complex decision-making.

Here I am, with a couple advanced degrees, and I virtually knocked myself out hanging a picture. Surely I know better, so I should have chosen a ladder or at least a stable chair. Either one would have increased my level of success and decreased my level of pain.

With that image in mind, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of balancing care and control in the juvenile justice system. Often the tool of choice in juvenile justice is the hammer — a tool that is driven with power and accountability, monitoring compliance and wielding authority.

Although the hammer is useful for its intended purpose, it doesn’t work very well in circumstances where other tools are a better fit. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, a hammer wouldn’t tighten a screw.

For juvenile justice, the system often overpromises the versatility of the hammer, ignoring the other tools in the box needed to build bridges for youth, families and communities. In doing so our probation officers are often underequipped to prevent youth from becoming funneled deeper into the system, especially youth with untreated or undiagnosed mental health needs.

Most estimates of prevalence range from 50 to 75 percent, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of youths having a serious emotional disorder. When compared to the estimates among the general population, 9 to 20 percent of youth indicating a mental health need, it is obvious youth with mental health challenges are disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system.

In fact, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives found two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities across the country reported holding youth in detention not because of the seriousness of their offenses but because they were awaiting mental health care.

These youth enter a justice system that is ill-equipped to respond to and support the complex and multisystemic issues facing them. Youth with mental health challenges present symptoms of their problems in multiple settings, including the school, community and home.

Subsequently, they pose a challenge to the traditional model of supervision. It’s no surprise that officers who supervise justice-involved youth with mental health challenges identify the most daunting issue regarding successful supervision as accessing and coordinating social services.

 

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